An ACC Bubble Battle: North Carolina Fails to Defend, Still WinsPosted by KCarpenter on February 17th, 2013
Kellen Carpenter is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s game between North Carolina and Virginia in Chapel Hill.
When media members participated in the mock NCAA tournament selection panel, Virginia found itself on just the right side of the bubble, picked to play one of the “First Four” match-ups for one of the last at-large seeds. North Carolina, on the other hand, found itself on the outside looking in. Obviously, no one should draw too much from a fake committee making selections for a hypothetical Tournament, but the bracket that this group managed to draw up reflects the prevailing thought about both team’s NCAA chances: Each team is squarely on the bubble and, at least on Friday afternoon, it seemed like Virginia was the better team.
It will be interesting to see how Saturday’s result, a UNC victory, will influence the real committee. The Cavaliers shot a blistering 58.5% from the field and 57.1% from beyond the arc, with Joe Harris scoring 27 points from all over the court. Yet somehow, North Carolina won this game, and the manner of victory signals an interesting transition for this team’s identity. The Tar Heels won at the free throw line, and while that phrase has been written countless times, there has been little occasion to use it this season. Roy Williams‘ offensive philosophy has historically been largely based around getting his team to the free throw line at a very high clip. Yet this season, his team gets to the line with somewhat dramatic infrequency. The Tar Heels’ free throw rate this season is only 28.5%, good for 331st in the nation — the worst a Roy Williams-led North Carolina team has ever performed in this category. His second-worst season by this measure was last year, where UNC still managed to put up an above average 37.3% rate. In this game against Virginia, the team started to look more like the UNC teams of the past decade. North Carolina went to the line 30 times and converted on 22 attempts from the line. It was a surprising change from the way the team has played for most of the season.
In a lot of ways, this game felt like a sea change for the Tar Heels. P.J. Hairston started again, his second game as a starter since his insertion into the lineup in Wednesday’s tilt against Duke. This, however, was a home game. The loudest cheers during player introductions were for Hairston, who fed off the applause on his way to a sensational and career-best 29-point game. The small lineup (with James Michael McAdoo as the only true big man) that Williams started on Wednesday against Duke has produced two of the team’s strongest games of the entire season. A team that has struggled to reliably find offense suddenly seems supercharged as its guard-heavy lineups have thrived with an aggressive series of drive-and-kick plays that resulted in made baskets or trips to the line. By going small, North Carolina is finally starting to look like North Carolina.
This team is still a work in progress defensively: A combined playing time of one minute for Desmond Hubert and Joel James (out with a concussion) means that the Tar Heels’ interior isn’t exactly rugged. Against a similarly smallish Virginia team, it didn’t hurt UNC as much as it could have, particularly with Akil Mitchell having something of an off game. While I’m sure it’s not comforting for the Cavaliers to lose after such a strong shooting performance, splitting the season series with UNC won’t hurt the Wahoos’ NCAA Tournament chances. The Cavaliers would still probably like to win at least one of their remaining games with Duke and Miami to solidify their position as a Tournament team, but in terms of skill, Virginia is there.
Despite Hairston’s slightly higher point total, Harris looked like the best player on the court for most of the game. In a conference filled with talented, versatile, and productive guards, Harris made a strong case that he may be the best of the bunch (after Erick Green, of course). Poor performances from Akil Mitchell, Jontel Evans, and the Cavaliers’ very nice crop of freshmen stymied the chances of Virginia winning this one, but it’s a promising sign for the team’s chances down the home stretch. This team’s dynamite shooters and typically tough defense make Tony Bennett’s squad a threat to beat any other team in the conference.